My would-be pen pal asked for photos of my home and school. And also the local Strategic Air Command base.
The first thing you must understand in the story of how I was recruited to spy for Albania is that when I was eight years old, I never foresaw a time when I might be embarrassed to admit that I used to read Dennis the Menace comic books. But the truth is that before I discovered Superman or Batman, let alone Hemingway or Shakespeare, I loved reading about a kid my age who got away with things I never could.
The second thing you must understand about the story is where I lived at that time in the early sixties. Our house was near Peru, Indiana, on Capehart Street on Bunker Hill Air Force Base, now renamed Grissom Air Reserve Base after Indiana’s native astronaut, Gus Grissom. Bunker Hill was an important base for the Strategic Air Command, the nuclear weapons branch of the U.S. Air Force.
Life on a SAC base was, for our fathers, a constant state of readiness to bomb the Soviet Union, for all of us made the assumption that the Russians would drop a hydrogen bomb or a missile on us at any time. For most people Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove is a dark comedy; for me it is a home movie of my childhood. My classmates and I knew no other life, and it seemed perfectly normal at the time.
Bunker Hill was special in many ways. Peru was the unlikely but historic winter quarters for a number of circuses. Unlike military families, circus families put down roots in the area. Sometimes on the edge of a cornfield a family would set up a trapeze and teach their children the act while passersby watched the free show. Just outside the base, past the security fence and guarded gate, was a barn with a painted sign by the highway: FREE ELEPHANT MANURE .
Idyllic as it was, I had visions of the wider world. The inside cover of the Dennis the Menace comic book ran a list of readers looking for pen pals. For some reason I thought I would like a pen pal in Hawaii and sent a request to the magazine. After a time I received a letter from Dennis, promptly pasted in a scrapbook, telling me that he would run my listing. When the issue finally arrived in the mail, I was thrilled to see my name in print even though Bailey was misspelled as Badey.
Soon the letters started arriving, some from Hawaii but the majority from other parts of the country, including one from a woman in her twenties who assumed I must be a young airman on the base. I wish I could say that I made lifelong friends through the mail, but before long I lost interest in the project.
One day while I was at school another letter arrived for Greg Badey of Bunker Hill Air Force Base. This letter, I was told years later, was strange-looking, with foreign stamps and an Albanian postmark. Albania was at that point in the Cold War the most radical Communist state in Europe, having broken away from the U.S.S.R. to follow the Maoist line of Red China. The envelope alarmed my mother so much she opened it.
Inside was a letter asking me if I would be the writer’s pen pal. He asked me to send him photographs of my home, my pets, my school, and, if I wouldn’t mind, photos of the airplanes on the flight line and the buildings around the base. My parents immediately took the letter to the Air Police, who confiscated it. My parents never heard any more about it, but I’m sure that somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon or the FBI there is a classified file on the Dennis the Menace spy connection recorded for history.
In time we were transferred to another base. My father retired after twenty-three years of active service and lived to see the end of the Cold War. Our former enemies are now friends or at least friendlier rivals, and Albania threw off its shackles and is building a democratic state. Historians are now gaining access to the once-secret files of the Cold War and finding the answers to many mysteries. One mystery, however, may never be answered: What kind of spy reads Dennis the Menace comic books?